Sunday, April 25, 2004

When the butterfly flaps its wings

Earth Day 2004
[my lay sharing on 4/25/04 in the Early Service]

In Brazil, a butterfly flaps its wings, setting off a chain of events that ends with a tornado in Texas. These types of sayings illustrate the concepts of so-called chaos theory, but to me, it says something more. But first, perhaps a little explanation.

First, Chaos theory is based on the following two concepts:
1) systems may appear to lack order but there are always underlying, if inexplicable, rules governing them; and
2) small or simple events can cause bigger or more complex events within the same system. Meteorologist Edward Lorenz first described the butterfly effect in 1972. The example of a small event such as the flapping of a butterfly's wings creating a tornado in Texas illustrates the impossibility of making completely accurate predictions about complex systems. Although the impact of events may be determined by underlying conditions in the system, precisely what those conditions are and what the impact will be can never be sufficiently articulated to allow long-range predictions.

Now clearly, this is a high-falutin’ way for a weather person to cop out on why their predictions are never right!

If you do a web search on the phrase "when a butterfly flaps its wings" you'll get all sorts of interesting things.

a butterfly flaps its wings in Beijing, the stock market on Wall Street flounders.

The flap of a butterfly's wings in Central Park could ultimately cause an earthquake in China.

There are some quite humorous stories, and I don't want to take up your time relating them all, but the point being illustrated over and over again is that small things can have larger, unforeseen consequences. The use of the term chaos can also be confusing, since most of us thing of it as something negative, but this new meaning has more of a "God only knows" side to it. It's also about perspective. Think about a hurricane. When you are aboard a ship amid a hurricane, all you feel is Chaos, even disaster. That's because you are too much inside it. If you happen to be in a weather satellite above the hurricane, then what you see from there is an orderly and majestic swirl moving along a certain path. Different viewpoints sometimes do give qualitatively different understandings.

What does this have to do with how we observe Earth Day in church?

For starters, let's take a quick look at the official stance of the UMC:

The Natural World

160 All creation is the Lord's, and we are responsible for the ways we use and abuse it. Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God's creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings. God has granted us stewardship of creation. We should meet these stewardship duties through acts of loving care and respect. Economic, political, social, and technological developments have increased our human numbers, and lengthened and enriched our lives. However, these developments have led to regional defoliation, dramatic extinction of species, massive human suffering, overpopulation, and misuse and overconsumption of natural and nonrenewable resources, particularly by industrialized societies.
This continued course of action jeopardizes the natural heritage that God has entrusted to all generations. Therefore, let us recognize the responsibility of the church and its members to place a high priority on changes in economic, political, social, and technological lifestyles to support a more ecologically equitable and sustainable world leading to a higher quality of life for all of God's creation.

This is a good general statement, and there's lots of specifics available to those interested. Other topics such as pesticide use, energy conservation, coal mining, recycling, and environmental justice are all covered in more detail. Check it out.

Last Year, the church council voted to join the California Interfaith Power and Light coalition, and asked our pastor to sign the covenant. Here it is:

California Interfaith Power & Light seeks to be faithful stewards of God’s Creation by responding to global warming through the promotion of energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. This ministry intends to protect the earth’s ecosystems, safeguard public health, and ensure sufficient, sustainable energy for all.

Now, the pastor has signed it, but he can't do it all by himself. We all need to place our hands on the wheel of faith, and make it spin in the direction of Love.

Now, I'd like to ask for your imagination here. I had some grand plans for an example of how we can save some energy, but one thing led to another, the butterfly flapped its wings, and it didn't happen. So, please, turn around and look at the exit sign above the doors in the center. Please imagine it's an LED exit sign, like those traffic lights that have popped up since the big energy crisis. OK, everyone in on this imaginary sign? Good.
This one sign will save up to $24 a year in energy bills. This is nice, of course, nice that money that could go towards apportionments or other ministries isn't just going away in our energy bills. But that's just money, that's not the what's really important. That sign, over the course of a year, will use from 100-300 less KwH, which directly translates to less carbon dioxide getting dumped into our atmosphere, which is directly the cause of global warming. This church has pledged itself to protecting God's creation, and that little sign will be helping. We're going to change all the signs here, about 30 of 'em, and when you see the new signs, I hope you'll remember why we really did it. I'm hopeful that over the course of the next year, we'll be replacing most of our light fixtures with low energy versions, which will save even more power.

But let's get back to the wings of a butterfly; I'd like to talk about melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer. It killed my father about 8 1/2 years ago, so it's something I'm quite aware of. Here's a simplified explanation of how one can get melanoma. Cancer is essentially a cell whose DNA has mutated, and survives to reproduce wildly, taking over, and damaging the body's organs. What starts this off is a tiny packet of ultraviolet light, invisible, yet quite damaging. Now we are under a certain amount of UV light all the time, and our bodies have certain ways to fend off damage, or even repair it. But once in a while, here and there around the world, one of these packets gets through, and damages a single cell to the point where it becomes a viable cancer. It's hard to say why it happens. I of course have asked myself why did my father have to die this way. It's kind of like the lottery, but not the kind you want to win. Now there's a lot of ways to protect yourself from UV rays; sunscreen, hats, longsleeve shirts, etc., but Mother Nature, Mother Earth, Gaia, has something else, and it's called the ozone layer. It's like our big blanket of sunscreen, but we've been unravelling it for years.

Now, more of those little packets of UV light are getting through, and melanoma rates are higher.

Now the ozone layer isn't being destroyed by global warming, I don't want to spread any junk science here, but these are both large complex systems that are caused by a large number of small events, as well as big ones. I'm not saying that if you replace your light bulbs with flourescents that somebody's father won't get melanoma, but the whole point of all this talk about butterfly wings is that we're all connected to each other, in a million ways, and what we do to, in, and around God's creation makes a difference.

I don't know how much time we have left here on earth, it's my dream we can protect Creation, and keep it around.

You might call me a dreamer.

Without Love in the Dream, it'll never come true.